“How do we deal with abandonment, ruin, decay? How do we start to imagine ourselves as deeper caretakers of the things that exist in the world?” —Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall is an exhibition that took one year to plan and realize in the Walker’s galleries, but, really, one could say the project unfolded over a number of years. With the commission of Gates’s Black Vessel for a Saint (2017) for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an invitation that was extended in 2015, I had the opportunity to work closely with the artist over a period of two years as he conceptualized his first permanent outdoor work. During this process, I saw firsthand how he could move mountains—or, in this case, hundreds of pallets of bricks and granite—to realize his artistic vision. What resulted was a 20-foot-tall sanctuary that provides permanent shelter to a salvaged statue of Saint Laurence. Facing the Walker, with a writing plume in one hand and a book in the other, the patron saint of librarians and archivists would be a harbinger of things to come inside the galleries.
When I went to Chicago to discuss the conceptual framework for Gates’s new exhibition, he suggested we take a walk through his studio (housed in a former Anheuser-Busch brewing facility). We passed his 1960s Heidelberg windmill printing press (recently acquired from Boswell, Indiana) on one end and his record collections on the other end (including records from Dr. Wax, a shuttered store on the South Side). Along the way, we stopped into his clay studio, where he talked to his team and threw a couple pots.
We did one loop around the space and then sat down to chat. We did a second loop, and again we sat down. When he suggested we take a third loop, I thought I had already seen all that I needed to see. But it was during this third trip that I realized everything we needed for the exhibition was right in front of us. There’s a piece of lore about Saint Laurence that Gates is fond of retelling. Asked to hand over the church’s riches to the government, the Roman deacon instead assembled the poor at the city capital and declared, “Here are our riches.” Similarly, he had been showing me room after room filled with archives and collections that had once been discarded, neglected, or simply forgotten. Gates was showing me his riches.
A number of Gates’s recent exhibitions—including The Black Image Corporation at Fondazione Prada, Milan (2018), Black Madonna at Kunstmuseum Basel (2018), and Black Archive at Kunsthaus Bregenz (2016)—presented his artistic response, in the forms of painting or sculpture, to a number of the collections housed at his spaces on the South Side, known as Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank. These include a selection of large-format photographs drawn from the Johnson Publishing Company’s photography archive, as well as monumental sculptures inspired by two of the some 6,000 objects in the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection of “Negrobilia.” But what would it mean to bring the collections themselves, many of which were stored in file cabinets and drawers, into a museum context for the first time? To show not just the objects and materials Gates surrounds himself with—and that serve as the raw materials and inspiration for his art—but to make the case that these collections, or the practice of collecting collections, is an artistic gesture in and of itself?
This would be an unconventional exhibition for our visitors in that we would not show discrete artworks—a single painting on the wall or a sculpture on the floor—in the familiar white cube setting of the gallery; rather, we would present four immersive environments, a Gesamtkunstwerk. Could we encourage visitors to focus not on individual artworks but on experiencing the artistic values that permeate a space—in this case, an almost spiritual belief in the life of things? Could we prompt people to expand their understanding of what art is, or can be—not just a tangible object but a process, an approach, a gesture?
We sketched out the collections of objects that would anchor the exhibition’s four rooms: the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides, The Johnson Publishing Company Collection, The Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection of “Negrobilia,” and, for the fourth and final gallery, what Gates calls his “Clay Studio Facsimile.” Taken together, Gates’s collections speak to his “deep belief in the objects and histories of African American material culture.” But more important than the specificities of each of the collections is the redemptive gesture that ties them together: “It was a deterministic desire to demonstrate that things had life in them, and that the life demonstrations, which sometimes I refer to as resurrections, could be not only in a piece of wood or a piece of concrete, but in an archive or in a building,” Gates said.
University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides
“I am interested in not only found objects but also discarded knowledge.” —Theaster Gates
We decided to begin with the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides—a collection of some 60,000 glass slides—as it was one of the first collections Gates took on as he was developing his first property on the South Side, Archive House. In 2009 he became the custodian of the teaching collection that had been used for over half a century to instruct art and architectural history at the University of Chicago. The slides, which the school was planning to throw away as it migrated to a digital platform, are now housed in the Stony Island Arts Bank, where the artist oversees the preservation of their visual and physical information.
Gates’s interest in the glass slides initially stemmed from his own desire to learn art history (he was trained as a ceramicist and an urban planner). However, as he began to dig through the collection, he found that he was much more interested in the narrative that unfolded around the university’s art historical pedagogy. The collection was cobbled together over the years from purchased box sets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and supplemented with specific additions from professors who made their own slides using DIY kits. The magic lantern, the device through which such slides were viewed, projected an enlarged image onto the wall, thereby allowing groups of students to view and discuss an artwork at the same time (those familiar with art history classes today may now understand the origins of the dramatically darkened lecture rooms). When the university decided to move the glass slides off campus, it digitized some 4,000 slides before doing so—barely 10 percent of the total collection.
“I was willing to take on the burden of not only the material waste but also the knowledge waste,” Gates said. “I understand that glass lantern slides seem to have no value in this digital world. But I also understand that there are some nuances that the material carries that I want.” Indeed, the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides largely contains imagery of Western art, from medieval tapestries to modern architecture, rather than a representation of art from around the world. A case in point: of the 60,000 slides, fewer than 50 depict examples of African art, then labeled “primitive art.”
In response to this Eurocentric narrative, Gates decided to critically and creatively highlight its problematic omissions. The artist’s six-channel moving image work, Art History (2019), is a gesture toward what he calls “reading blackness” into the canon of art history. Through a series of overlapping art history lectures—we hear scholars discuss the birth of modernism and “why it happened in Europe and not China and Peru,” or artists like Kerry James Marshall discuss the absence of black figuration in the history of painting—Gates asks us to consider how institutions have shaped the art historical field in such a way that generations have been trained to see value in certain art forms or works made by certain producers.
Ultimately, through the insertion of images that represent what the artist calls “minority arts, or works produced by non-Western makers, and “minor arts”—featuring pottery, woodworking, and other craft traditions long considered to be outside the realm of fine arts—Gates challenges us to contend with the supposed authority and objectivity of what we read (in educational institutions) and what we see (in art museums).
Johnson Publishing Company Collection
“Not only were John H. Johnson and Eunice Johnson great entrepreneurs, but they also understood that image-making goes hand in hand with identity formation, which goes hand in hand with nation building, and that if we could get black people to see not only the negative portrayals that were happening in other magazines of the day (this is the 1940s, 1950s), that in addition to those negative stereotypical images of black people that there are all these other moments that are not even Black Aspirational but Black Truth… that there were things happening in the black community that were worth being proud of and no one was showing those images.” —Theaster Gates
Founded in Chicago in 1942, the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) soon became known internationally as the preeminent African American publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. John H. and Eunice Johnson created publications and products that directly addressed the lives of black Americans. From its in-depth reporting on the civil rights movement to its lifestyle articles and fashion photography, the company helped shape the identity of a black middle class during its 76-year run. For generations of readers, JPC stood for self-invention, self-empowerment, and self-determinism. “In a world of negative Black images, we wanted to provide positive Black images,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography.
In 1971 JPC opened its new corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago. A city landmark, the building was the first (and remains the only) high-rise in the area designed by a black architect, John W. Moutoussamy. Through its 11 custom-designed floors the building represented the Johnsons’ experimental ethos and a celebration of black creativity. Employee perks included a cafeteria (where for $1 you could purchase an entire meal), a recreation room with game tables, and both men’s and women’s lounges with “a full range of hair care products so that employees can keep their Afros styled,” as mentioned in the September 1972 issue of Ebony.
Gates—along with other artists, including Lorna Simpson and Ellen Gallagher—have engaged with the extensive JPC photography archive in their artworks. This room, however, focuses not on the visual archive (soon to be housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, among other cultural institutions) but rather on the richness of the company’s material archive. In the years following the sale of JPC’s headquarters in 2010, Gates and his studio team salvaged many of the furnishings, books, paintings, sculptures, and other ephemera from the office spaces.
Through the artist’s acts of restoration and reimagination, the gallery includes, among other items: a sofa upholstered in hand-woven fabric; a desk and matching credenza made of “zebra wood faced in alligator dyed Zanzibar red”; an IBM typewriter custom wrapped in red leather; works by African American abstract painters and sculptors such as Richard Hunt, Thomas Sills, and Francis Sprout; and a small yet powerful bust of Frederick Douglass. “What we intend is that the building and the art collection combine as a really bold, positive statement about the company’s commitment to the black people it serves,” Johnson said in the pages of Ebony. Gates’s gesture of salvage, or what he has called “salvation,” enables visitors not just to see but to experience, touch, and feel the complexity and cohesion of JPC’s pioneering philosophy.
Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection
“How do you train a person to look at the ugliness of America? To accept the embarrassing truth that people made mockery of other people.” —Theaster Gates
This collection was shaped by Edward J. Williams, now a retired businessman who grew up on the South Side and was the first African American male employee of Harris Bank in Chicago. In the 1970s he stumbled upon a racist caricature of a black man in an antique shop in Indiana. Initially, his impulse was to take the object, and others like it, out of circulation; however, Williams soon began to amass his collection with different intent: “The more I collected, the more I realized the range of stuff that had derogatory black images was endless,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget.”
At the time of his retirement, in 2004, Williams was looking to transfer the collection to a cultural institution. “He had a legacy that he was offering and nobody was taking it. These things needed a home and no museum was interested,” Gates said. The artist had begun construction on his Stony Island Arts Bank, which he imagined as “a repository for black material things,” and took in the entire collection with the promise that he would give it visibility and share it with a wider audience.
Williams’s collection fits within a larger category of what has been called “negrobilia” by collectors to describe mostly 19th- and 20th-century consumer objects that feature racist stereotypes of black people.
Notably, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and other scholars have unearthed in their research, racist depictions proliferated during the period known as Reconstruction (1865–1977) following the end of the Civil War. At a time when African Americans were granted freedom from slavery and black men gained the right to vote, there emerged with terrifying vehemence a white supremacist ideology that Gates, Jr. has described as “a massive wave of propaganda hellbent on permanently devaluing the freedpeople’s very humanity.” In addition to the reality of violence intended to sow fear in communities seeking to exercise their suffrage rights, anti-black sentiment permeated people’s homes.
What Gates, Jr. calls the “daily, mundane existence” of racism insinuated itself in the form of children’s toys and kitchen items, advertisements and postcards, resulting in a dizzying array of products and a contradictory onslaught of stereotypes. Black identities were essentialized into damaging and dehumanizing racist caricatures and commingled with objects of consumption such that consumers’ desire for pancake syrup, for instance, was subconsciously conflated with the degrading stereotype of black women as “mammy” figures.
Many of the objects on view take the form of functional items—dinner bells, cookie jars, coin banks, ash trays—as if, in the period following the liberation of slaves into freed black people, the presumably white owners of these objects could keep their black counterparts in the kitchen and subject them to eternal servitude. It was a way to insist on white superiority and supremacy and to mark, whether consciously or subconsciously, what David Pilgrim has referred to as “white spaces.”
In 2016, Gates responded to two of the items in the Williams Collection—a dancing minstrel figure and a pin cushion with a baby doll’s head—through the production of large sculptures, demonstrating “how scale shows the problem of desire.” The magnification of the objects forces the viewer to confront the objects’ overt racism, wherein the object can no longer be confined to a handheld tchotchke but becomes an unavoidable presence of the white imagination’s creation. In a similar way, at the Walker, the objects show the problem of desire through their density and repetition. The sheer number of objects underscores the persistence with which racist propaganda infiltrated homes and consciousnesses a century ago—and continue to have contemporary corollaries today.
Indeed, Gates’s intention is not to convey that racism is confined to the past; rather, he asks visitors to confront the ongoing reality of racism today. We continue to see similar stereotypes at the grocery store (in the form of Aunt Jemima’s syrup bottles or Uncle Ben’s rice boxes), online (in the form of digital memes, or what has come to be known as “digital blackface”), or in antique stores and secondhand shops (I was perusing one in Southwest Minneapolis just the other weekend when I came across a collection of tchotchkes denigrating Asian peoples’ identities).
Seen together, the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection and the Johnson Publishing Company Collection serve as bookends of the same story: “You have the white racial imagination, and then you have the black intellectual regime shouting about uplift and the power of images to help shape the future of the middle class,” Gates said. “I admire that this took place as an entrepreneurial pursuit on the newsstands every week and every month through Jet, Ebony, Tan, Hue, Negro Digest, Black World, Ebony, Jr., and that Johnson produced periodical after periodical trying to increase the confidence and dignity of black people.”
Clay Studio Facsimile
“You should never think about the pot independent of those who might gather with it. A thing without people is not really a thing.” —Theaster Gates
Gates trained as a potter in the United States, South Africa, and Japan. His work with ceramics—and his interest in African religious rituals and Asian social traditions such as the tea ceremony—have influenced the importance of creating gathering spaces in the context of his larger artistic practice. Whether shaping a bowl from clay or building an architectural structure with bricks (Gates has referred to Black Vessel for a Saint as his “biggest pot to date”), he draws our attention to the importance of making space. “I think my investment in the creation of bigger spaces and its philosophies is deeply rooted in one’s ability to create a good pot, or a tea bowl, or an Onggi Korean vessel—that is, the potential sacredness within the voids that one creates,” he said. “The goal is to allow the person who’s the user of the vessel, big or small, to have a really simple experience.”
For one of his first projects in 2007, the artist hosted a performative gathering in Chicago that entailed serving soul food on ceramic plates made in the spirit of Japanese tea ware. The merging of African American and East Asian traditions allowed for what the artist called a “plate convergence,” in which, as the artist describes, “people came from all over to discuss issues of race, political difference, and inequity.” Drawing from this early project, and in an effort to call attention to the centrality of ceramics to Gates’s larger practice, this final room features an installation of thousands of pots and other wares made by the artist and his studio team. These range from Japanese tea bowls to what the artist has called a “black bowl,” or a bowl that is “responsive to the foods of black people, to the aesthetic needs of black people,” and they highlight his engagement and experimentation with different forms, functions, histories, and philosophies by virtue of his work with clay.
Through this exhibition, Gates shows how a single tea bowl or an entire collection of objects can serve as an impetus for communal gathering, or temporary assembly. “These things, they’re not just things,” Gates said. “They’re the way we deal with our lives, they’re the way we shape our world.”